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Dog Sleds and Carrioles

The Metis were very proud of their dog teams, and their gear was highly ornamented.
Metis hunter and trader Norbert Welsh (1845-1932) gives this description:

I had my dogs well harnessed, plenty of bells on them and ribbons flying all over.
These dogs were of common breedwe could not get Eskimo dogsbut they were
strong. Each dog could pull four hundred pounds and race with it. I had a young
Indian driving one team. We went very fast over the plains. Sometimes we would ride
on the sleigh, and sometimes we would run beside or behind it.1

Last dog train leaving Lower Fort Garry. Reproduction from original by Charles Comfort
produced for a Hudsons Bay Company calendar. Copyright HBC

1
Mary Weekes, The Last Buffalo Hunter (Account of Norbert Welsh), Calgary: Fifth House, 1994: 9.

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The dog sleds used seem to have had two basic designsthe open sledge, and the
enclosed cariole. Sleds were used routinely in the fur trade as early as 1797. Dog sleds
usually travelled in trains of several dog sleds, with each dog team following the track
of the one in front of it. Most or all of the men travelling with the train would wear
snowshoes and run along with the dogs. Paul Kane gave a good description of dog sleds
on the road.

'...Two men go before [the lead dog] on the run in snowshoes to beat a track, which
the dogs instinctively follow: these men are relieved every two hours, as it is very
laborious.'...'We had three carioles and six sledges, with four dogs to each, forming
when en route a long and picturesque cavalcade : all the dogs gaudily decorated
with saddle-cloths of various colors, fringed and embroidered in the most fantastic
manner, with innumerable small bells and feathers...Our carioles were also
handsomely decorated...' 2

In his North Dakota history book Clement Lounsberry gives the following narrative:

Prior to 1800, the only means of transportation used on the plains of North
Dakota was the dog sledge in winter, the Indian travois in summer, and the packs by men
or animals. The dog sledge was much like the toboggan, flat-bottomed with a guard or
2
Paul Kane, Paul. Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America Edmonton: Hurtig, 1967:
270-271.

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dash-board in front, wide enough to seat one person, and long enough so he could recline
if desired, as the dogs skipped along over the prairie. The driver could jump on or off
when the animals were moving at high speed. A passenger, wrapped in furs, could sleep
in perfect comfort as the sledge glided along from seventy-five to ninety miles a day,
each sledge drawn by three dogs, with a driver to each sledge. There were frequently as
high as twenty-five sledges in a train. The dogs were held in check by a strong cord
attached to the leader. The dogs responded to a motion of the whip or hand, to indicate
the direction, every dog knew his name, and all became attached to their masters,
especially when treated kindly. They were fed a pound of pemmican a day. A trained
leader was worth $20, and others from $8 to $10. Their life of usefulness on the train ran
from eight to twelve years. A dog sledge would carry about four hundred pounds.

A Carriole at Fort Garry Gate 1899, British Library #11530

In winter dog sledges were used for both freight and passenger service; the allowance of
load per dog on a long journey being 100 pounds. One of the traders claimed that he had
transported 1,000 pounds by the use of six, and, part of the way, eight dogs, from the
Mandan villages on the Missouri, to the Red River posts. In summer the dogs were
frequently used to carry buffalo meat from the place where the animals were killed to the
points where the women were engaged in curing the meat for the trade or for the winter
store.

3
Lionel MacDonald Stephenson (18541907) Fort Garry 1879, n.d., oil on board, 31.5 x
45.5 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Gift of Robert and Margaret
Hucal (1999-589)

Fort Garry 1871, Library and Archives Canada, online MIKAN no. 3392382

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Dogs were also used to pull a travois. Two poles were crossed and fastened over the
shoulders of the dogs, with a piece of hide underneath them to prevent chafing; the other
extremities dragging on the ground. It was secured to the animal by strings- around the
body, while a bar was fastened to the poles at the rear, keeping them a proper distance
apart, and serving to support the load.

The travois for use on the ponies were made in substantially the same way, except that
the poles about sixteen feet long were fastened to the saddle on either side of the animal,
the rear end dragging on the ground, and were capable of carrying about five hundred
pounds. They were also called the traville and by some the travees.3

Dog sled near Fort Clark. Watercolor by Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied 1833.

3
Clement A. Lounsberry, North Dakota History and People; Outlines of American History (Volume 1).
Washington: Liberty Press, 1919: 143-144.

5
Charles M. Russell print, Montana Historical Society
(H-1701) (X1969.02.01)

Dog Team with Cariole at St. Paul Minnesota, 1800s.

6
Albert Campbell: The winner of the 1917 Winnipeg to St. Paul Winter Carnival sled dog
race. Albert Campbell, was a Metis musher from the area around The Pas, Manitoba.

Compiled by Lawrence Barkwell


Coordinator of Metis Heritage and History Research
Louis Riel Institute